Audience takes centre stage in pioneering virtual reality dance film

How do you capture a stage show on screen? The challenge has always been to somehow translate the multidimensional experience of live performance – in which the spectator chooses where to focus attention – to the guided eye of film, where it’s the director who decides what to zoom in on, and for how long.

The frustration runs both ways. When filmed, the panoramic experience of a stage can create the effect of watching grass grow in a very large savannah; meanwhile, the language of edits and pans that a film director relies on can cut the action on stage into shreds.

Stuck in the Middle with You, the first virtual reality commission of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Acmi), solves some of these problems by plunging the viewer straight into the middle of a contemporary dance piece.

The eight-minute work is a collaboration between Acmi, film-maker Matthew Bate of Closer Productions and Sydney Dance Company (SDC). The raw material is L’Chaim, which was choreographed by Chunky Move’s former artistic director, Gideon Obarzanek, for SDC in 2014.

It is an apt collaboration in many ways. Obarzanek has been exploring the cutting edge of technology for a decade now, using interactive software to track and translate dancers’ movements into sound and light projections in his award-winning choreographies Glow and Mortal Engine. He’s also responsible for a suite of sophisticated dance films, some in collaboration with Bate. Meanwhile, L’Chaim – a dance piece based around a conversation between a dancing ensemble and an interrupting, uneducated but curious spectator – provides an excellent framing device to immerse the viewer in dance.

Acmi’s resulting production – short in duration and dappled with the occasional video freeze – is a spectacular demonstration of what dance, film and theatre could become in the future of virtual reality.

After putting the virtual reality headset on, the audience finds themselves inside an auditorium where a dance work is about to begin. A cut, and you have woken up in the middle of the performance; another cut, and you are now on stage, surrounded by a dancing ensemble.

The effect of the 360-degree filming is exhilarating, allowing the audience to view the performance as it ebbs and flows on all sides, with dancers so close you can observe the minutiae of their movement with a level of detail that even a front-row seat couldn’t allow.

What do you think about when you’re dancing? What does it all mean? These are some of the questions asked by the disembodied voice that plays in your head; the dancers approach you – in the middle of the stage – and try to answer them, while also trying to dance.

Being resolutely nonverbal, dance has an affinity to experimental film that’s made dance film a successful niche; text-based theatre, meanwhile, becomes flat and strange on screen. With virtual reality though, one’s attention can be guided in subtle ways by lighting cues, directional sound and mass movement to one side.

As virtual reality films develop, they are likely to rely on the language of theatre more than of cinema, creating narratives that are robust and layered enough to allow a choose-your-own-adventure approach. Some of our best stage directors already use that freedom to great effect – in a staging of Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, Melbourne director Daniel Schlusser untangled the detective story into a linear retelling of the murder. The challenge for the audience, watching 12 characters scurrying about on stage, is to not miss any of the important events amid the constant action.

Computer games are another point of reference –particularly the first-person adventures. But until we figure out how to move through real-life spaces while holding a large, blinding apparatus on our faces, theatre and dance may remain the most satisfying artform to behold in virtual reality. I’m looking forward to seeing what The Met can do with this technology.

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